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Thursday, September 20, 2007
Thomas Carlyle on IP
Via Cliopatria, the group blog of the History News Network, we learn that the correspondence of the great Victorian man of letters Thomas Carlyle, and that of his wife, Jane Welsh Carlyle, is now available online. "Between them," observes the historian Miriam Elizabeth Burstein, "they corresponded with nearly every major figure of the age -- in Britain, in America, and in Europe."
A project of the Duke University Press, with help from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a brigades of techies, the Carlyle Letters Online feature some 10,000 documents -- as well as an elegant design.
Where to begin? If you want to search by letter recipient, the site gives you a few prompts: Dickens, George Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Shelley, William Thackeray? Perhaps John Stuart Mill or Goethe?
Clicking on Dickens, I came upon a screed by Carlyle in defense of intellectual-property rights, written in 1842 when Dickens was in the United States and complaining loudly about the countless ripoff editions of his books. (Ideas recently published a piece about America's cavalier attitude toward IP in those days.)
The letter was intended to be made public, and Carlyle begins with fulsome words about the Anglo-American relationship, in that inimitable florid Victorian style:
Several years ago, if memory err not, I was one of many English Writers who ... did sign a petition to Congress, praying for an International Copyright between the Two Nations -- which, properly, are not Two Nations, but one -- indivisible by Parliament, Congress, or any kind of Human Law or Diplomacy; being already united by Heaven's Act of Parliament, and the Everlasting Law of Nature and Fact. To that opinion I still adhere, and am like to continue adhering.
But then he gets down to business:
In an ancient Book, reverenced I should hope on both sides of the ocean, it was Thousands of Years ago, written down in the most decisive and explicit manner, "Thou Shalt not Steal." That thou belongest to a different "Nation" and canst steal without being certainly hanged for it, gives thee no permission to steal. Thou shalt not in anywise steal at all! So it is written down for Nations and for Men, in the Law Book of the Maker of this Universe. Nay, poor Jeremy Bentham and others step in here, and will demonstrate that it is actually our true convenience and expediency not to steal; which I for my share, on the great scale and on the small, and in all conceivable scales and shapes, do also firmly believe it to be.
What would Carlyle think of downloading free MP3's? Nay, what would he make of Lawrence Lessig?